Last spring, I was approached by my local chapter of the Legal Marketing Association about presenting alongside attorney Dana Hoffman of Young Moore on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its application to law firm website design. The presentation was fun and informative, and I was honored shortly thereafter the opportunity to expand the focus for an audience of litigators at the 2017 Defense Research Institute’s Retail and Hospitality Conference in Chicago. I’ll be presenting on this topic this Friday alongside Amy Richardson of Harris Wiltshire & Grannis. Amy has worked on both the litigation and government enforcement sides of this issue and we’re both looking forward to talking with attorneys representing clients across the business spectrum on this interesting topic.
To that end, I wanted to share a short post on the history of the ADA and websites, an update of where things stand from a legal perspective in the United States, and then review a few guidelines and resources that you should keep in mind if you are a person managing a website for a public facing business or organization.
As I’ve dug into this topic over the last year, I have to say I’ve been most fascinated by watching the process of a law originally intended for physical spaces be considered for interpretation in the digital space.
For a bit of background, Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 deals directly with places of public accommodation -- think hotels, restaurants, office buildings, schools, etc. -- and has set forth extremely clear guidelines on physical locations and the standards they should meet to serve disabled populations.
All of that was well and good in 1990, when the then-nascent Internet was not the ubiquitous presence in the lives of Americans that it is today. For example, retail shopping in-person at a mall in 1990 was booming, unlike today where online shopping has completely changed the game for retailers. As time and technologies evolved however, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the entity charged with enforcing the ADA, hinted but never definitively stated that Title III may indeed be applicable to websites.
Upon first recognizing this possible application of Title III of the ADA in 2003, the DOJ laid out a Voluntary Action Plan for government agencies and private entities, and later followed that up with a short list of recommendations in 2007. In 2010, the DOJ seemed to be picking up steam on this topic when they released a Notice of Advance Rulemaking -- stating that they were “considering revising the regulations implementing Title III of the ADA in order to establish requirements for making the goods, services...offered by public accommodations via the Internet, specifically at sites on the World Wide Web, accessible to individuals with disabilities.”
From this statement, it was forecasted by those in the accessibility community that formal guidelines would come down from the DOJ in 2015 -- a date which was later pushed out to 2017 for government agencies and 2018 for private businesses and entities.
Meanwhile, the tech community and our courts system were forced to deal with the issue on their own. First, the tech community coalesced around a set of standards via the World Wide Web Consortium, establishing the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in 2008 and later updating them in 2012 (WCAG 2.0), when they were also adopted as an ISO standard. Today, web designers and developers across the world use WCAG 2.0 to guide their design and development, typically aiming to meet all of the standards under Level AA.
On the legal side, ambiguity in the law and the speed at which technology and dependence on the Internet has developed created an opportunity for litigation all over our nation. As these cases have moved through our system, the courts have been nearly split -- with the 1st, 3rd and 7th Circuits ruling that the ADA does apply to websites, while the 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits have ruled that it does not. These latter rulings have all been based on the interpretation that the ADA is focused on physical location and requires a nexus test. Other circuit courts in the United States have yet to rule on the topic.
In January of 2017 the federal government moved forward with the adoption of WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard for federal agency sites, leading many in the accessibility community to believe that a full adoption of the WCAG 2.0 Level AA standards by the DOJ for websites both public and private would be forthcoming. As of the writing of this post, that has neither occurred nor been added to the DOJ’s agenda, likely due to the installation of a new administration and other legislative priorities.
Without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to gauge where the Trump administration will direct the DOJ on ADA regulations in relation to websites moving forward, if they do at all. The administration has already emphasized a desire to move away from regulation and those with a vested interest in the application of the ADA to websites have taken that as a signal that the already thrice delayed process will continue to be pushed down the list of priorities.
So, you may ask, if the courts are divided and the DOJ doesn’t currently have standards set -- or a timeline in place for setting standards -- around accessibility for private entities, why should you worry with having an accessible website for your business or organization?
Great question. From where I sit, here’s why:
So, how do you start working toward a more accessible website for your business or organization?
Accessibility is important and should be a part of your company or organization’s long-term digital presence strategy. As the web grows ever more refined and personalized, it will no longer be just other entities like the government, Google and the DOJ that expect your site to function with all possible populations in mind. Individual users of all backgrounds, abilities and experience will expect and demand that your site be clear, easy to use and accessible to all.